My friend Genie Moore and I were talking the other day when she casually mentioned that her family recently came across a baby rattlesnake at Uvas Canyon. Given our family’s recent happy discovery of Uvas, and the feeling of unprepared dread that I try to ignore when walking by the park system’s ever-present rattlesnake warning signs, this immediately grabbed my attention.
Genie is an Environmental Education Specialist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and a mom of two, so I asked if she might be willing to share some advice about what families should do to prepare for a chance encounter with a rattlesnake on the trails. Thanks to our new virtual meeting world, mid-conversation we were also joined by her husband, Bryan Popper, a District Supervisor Wildlife Biologist with US Dept of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. The following is some of their advice on what to do in the worse case scenario of a rattlesnake bite, and even better, how to keep that from happening in the first place.
The conversation has been edited for clarity. Some great advice on bear and mountain lion encounters didn’t fit here, but will be soon to follow!
How Common Are Rattlesnakes in the Bay Area?
K: One of the things that surprised me about your story is that you saw the rattlesnake by the creek bed. I think many of us are used to seeing them in dry arid places, so we don’t expect to come across them in damp or forested areas. How common are they throughout the Bay Area?
G: They’re throughout the hills. Anywhere in a chaparral. Near oaks, woodlands, grasslands, all of the east bay hills, down through the south county. They need water, so they can be by the creek beds. The biggest one I’ve ever seen was at Rancho. It was huge, maybe five or six feet long and we heard it rustling through the grass. I’ve never seen one near the Baylands, but one of our employees did years ago because they will come down the creeks, especially in a good year when they might lay a lot of eggs. Once they lay their eggs, it’s not like they have to nurse. They hatch and then off they go.
They like to lay out in the sun and warm up on roadways, wide trails, and paved trails. Just because you’re on a paved trail, don’t think you’re not going to see a snake. They will hang out on any sort of trail with sun exposure, so they can warm up.
They’ll also curl up and hide next to a rock or a bush. That little baby rattlesnake that we saw, it just laid there in the middle of the trail. It wasn’t all curled up and it didn’t rattle or anything, it was just lying there. I happened to look close enough to see its teeny tiny rattle on its tail. I was surprised because typically the younger ones are more freaked out and more likely to bite because they’re new to life and are just figuring things out. The adults tend to be more experienced, so they know when to strike or not. But that one literally looked like it hadn’t been out of the egg for very long. If I wasn’t paying attention, I would have just thought it was a stick.
K: I’ve overheard kids in a park ask their parents if they might see a rattlesnake, and parents reply that rattlesnakes wouldn’t be found there, even though I just saw a sign that says otherwise.
B: I’ve spent 22 years working in the wildlife field, and if there’s one thing I have learned, it’s never say never. And unfortunately, I hate to say it, but there’s a lot of people here that raise animals that they’re not supposed to, and then they release them. So even if it’s not necessarily a rattlesnake area, there could be somebody who picked one up when it was little and raised it, and then when it got to be three foot long they thought this is not what I need to have in my house, and release it. That’s why there’s always alligators being found in different parts of the state.
What Should You Do If You, Or Someone in Your Group, Is Bitten by a Rattlesnake?
G: Get to the hospital as fast as possible! You don’t want to do what people used to say, which is suck out the venom or tie a tourniquet. I think that just makes it worse. Lightly bandage the wound, and call the Ranger or Park Emergency Line. They will have emergency vehicles and will try to get to you if possible. [Note: due to changes in staffing at parks during Covid-19 restrictions, ask for the emergency number upon arrival at the park. If you there is no Ranger upon arrival, note the emergency number but also plan to call 911].
B: Yes, but it’s a matter of where you are. If you are in cell service and you’re relatively close to the trailhead, call them to get them coming toward you to get medical help faster. But if you’re way up on a trail, try to head down the trail as quickly and calmly as possible. You want to try to get moving without doing as much moving as possible, because the more that blood flows, the more you move the venom around.
G: If it’s your kid, you would pick them up and carry them, but it’s kind of a pickle, because it’s not like you can do anything but walk or carry a person out.
B: Or if they send somebody, it’s just a matter of whether it’s going to be hard to get people in and out and if you can be in a position to move somewhere easier to access. But try to get somebody on the way to help.
G: And that’s why it’s good not to hike by yourself, so you can send someone out to get help while you try to stay calm and go at a slower pace.
B: Like when we were at Uvas and we did see a rattlesnake. In that situation it would have been good to send one of us down to the Ranger Station. If it was one of the kids, I could have picked them up and tried to start making our way down while having someone else run ahead. At the Ranger Station, somebody would call 911 and someone else will be coming up to meet the party.
G: But that’s why you just try not to get bitten in the first place!
There’s really not anything you can do until you get medical attention.
How Not to Get Bitten in the First Place
G: One easy thing to remember is to always have a walking stick. So if you’re going to step over a log or a rock or something, and you can’t see the other side, put your stick there first. My dad always taught me never to step over a log if you can’t see the other side, it’s good advice. And you can use them for a lot of things.
Always be aware of what’s around you. I never walk with earbuds, ever. You see people running or walking with earbuds, and that’s fine in the neighborhood, but when you’re in the wilderness… I would never do that. You need to listen to what’s around you, and always look in front of you as you step. That’s basically what I do. It’s hard because you probably won’t see a rattlesnake. I’ve seen two rattlesnakes in all of my years of hiking. It’s not many, but it’s enough to get your attention, because you do let your guard down. It’s good to remember that you might not see a rattlesnake, but they are there.
B: A pocket knife is always handy.
G: I think carrying a first aid kit and then that walking stick is a good thing.
B: A good pocket knife has so many options for what you could use it for, because you could cut clothing to make a bandage if necessary. You can use sticks to make splints, you can do all sorts of stuff like that in the event that something happens. You can use it to defend yourself if need be, and in case someone gets bitten by a snake and they don’t know for sure what it is, they could get a stick and pin it down and then kill it with a knife. Not that that’s necessarily what a lot of people want to do, but then you have the animal and you can bring it back and say I was bit by this.
K: I don’t think I could do that. And if I tried, I’d probably get bitten twice. Or not have actually killed it, and create a situation for the medical team.
B: Yeah, I mean, it’s a little bit gruesome and probably not for everyone, but there’s a lot of people that can’t tell the difference between a gopher snake and a rattlesnake, especially all the sudden if it jumps out and bites you. You may get lucky, and it may be just a gopher snake so now you only need to get treated for infection.
K: I also read that most people get bitten on their hands or their ankles, so we always wear pants. I always feel like my kids are super overdressed on the trails, but I’ve heard that you should always have pants, high socks, and thick shoes so that if anything bites you in the ankle it may not be as likely to penetrate your skin.
G: Yeah, tall boots and thick socks. When we were at Uvas, our daughter was wearing sandals. We had tennis shoes, and then we brought Creek shoes for the kids. It’s really hard to get good hiking shoes for kids until they get a little bigger. I’m just as guilty at being careless over the years.
You do get comfortable, but I am always looking. You have to pay attention to where you’re putting your feet and to where you’re walking, what’s around you, above you, listening. I did notice the rattlesnake, but my daughter and dog had walked over it before I saw it, because they were ahead of me. It was a lesson to show her what we’re looking for.
And [Bryan’s] good at spotting stuff, so besides that little rattlesnake we did see an aquatic garter snake. It’s just always looking for movement. When you’re walking through a neighborhood, you may be watching for cars, but you’re not really looking and hearing things that are moving around you.
It goes back to nature journaling too. It’s not just looking, it’s noticing and observing. I think that’s important for hiking. You don’t want to put in your earbuds and run down the trail. I always call those people mountain lion bait, because they’re just not paying attention to their surroundings. So with a rattlesnake, they are either just going to be sitting still or they’re traveling. You’re going to hear them crunching in the long grass or the leaf litter. If you can hear that first, you might hear it before you see it. It’s also good to teach kids to be listening.
B: After one of the lion attacks we went and talked to our daughter’s preschool group, because they would spend time at one of the parks where one of the attacks happened. Some of the things that we recommended were a good walking stick that’s a bit more substantial, not too heavy, but something that won’t break easily. And also something like a security whistle that can make a lot of noise. We also printed up a number of flyers. You know my agency actually has some good ones about what to do if you encounter certain animals [USDA Snake Safety Article]. But a lot of it just goes back to being aware of your surroundings both visually and auditorily, because if you’re aware, then maybe you won’t get yourself in that situation.
Five year old JJ was pretty excited to hear we were talking about rattlesnakes. Like many of us he’s fascinated by them, with no desire to ever come across one in the wild! The following are some questions that he had for Genie and Bryan.
JJ: Why does a black diamond rattlesnake have gray and black diamonds on their backs?
G&B: Well, it’s all about camouflage. It’s all based on the habitat they’re in, and evolves to allow them to be more successful with hunting or breeding. Which is why we need our walking sticks!
JJ: How do they taste air, and why do they stick their tongues out like they do?
B: So, their tongue comes out and particles of whatever is in the air sticks to their tongue. They pull it back in, and they have these organs in their mouth, and they use those almost like a cross between taste and smell. I think they’re called the Jacobson’s organs. By having a split tongue, they can stick it out in different directions so they can sense which direction had more of the rat smell, for example. Then they use that to help detect differences in where prey might be. When they get close enough, rattlesnakes are a pit viper, so they actually have these pit organs that allow them to detect heat. This allows them to actually key in on where the prey is when they are close.
JJ: Why do rattlesnakes rattle?
Every time they shed their skin they add a new rattle. Somehow they evolved this technique of being able to use it as a warning when there’s something out there that they don’t necessarily want to bite or eat. So they warn them off with the rattle. I’m not sure why they evolved that behavior but a lot of snakes actually show that same behavior, curling up and then shaking their tail like that. They just don’t have rattles. Gopher snakes do it and a lot of other vipers do the same type of thing. I think young rattlesnakes are actually born with a rattle to start with, so there’s always the one on the end. They break off, so you can’t just look at it and say that’s how many times this skin has shed or that’s how old it is. Generally, the more rattles they have the older they are, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate. With a lot of prey and a warm area they may grow faster than in an area where they have to hibernate. They’re still just a snake and and pretty much want the basics: warmth and food, and then a certain time of the year to breed. That’s pretty much it.
Lots of high-tech stuff that goes into an eating package.
I’ve always found it really interesting. I mean they have all these high-tech organs but they’re really simple creatures.
G: And as a bonus, they help us with our rat population too!